Ice Fishing Tip: A One/Two Punch for Bass and Pike

With a solid understanding of natural bait preferences, ice anglers who aren’t choosy about species can often catch northern pike and bass in the same areas.

Ice Fishing Tip: A One/Two Punch for Bass and Pike

As a Minnesota resident, I must drill holes through the ice if I want to continue fishing during winter. I spend approximately half my time targeting sunfish and crappies with aid of a fishfinder (flasher), underwater camera and lightweight rods and reels. In my opinion, this type of fishing is the best interactive video game on the planet.

The other half of my ice time is spent pursuing northern pike and bass with aid of tip-ups. (Click here if you’re new to tip-up fishing.) The key to catching both is your choice of natural bait.


Live Bait vs. Dead Bait

Many anglers who haven’t targeted northern pike in the winter don’t understand that dead bait is sometimes preferred by pike over live bait. In my experience, this preference is tied closely to pike size. Small pike, say those less than 30 inches, seem to like live bait more than dead bait. So, if the lake you’re fishing is packed with hammer-handles (small pike), you’ll likely catch the maximum number of fish with live bait. Rig your tip-ups with 4- to 6-inch shiners or suckers, keep the minnows just above the weeds, and get ready for action.

For larger pike, and this is especially true if your body of water has pike measuring 36 inches or more, you’ll increase your odds of enticing a strike by using large dead baits. By “large” I mean dead suckers or other varieties measuring 8 to 12 inches.

Rigging tip: For 4- to 6-inch live baits, you’re best with a single treble hook. For large dead baits, you’re best with a quick-strike rig featuring two trebles. The two models I like best are the Northland Predator Rig and the Bigtooth Rig from Bigtooth Tackle Company.

A Northland Tackle Single Wire Predator Rig features a single treble and is great for 4- to 6-inch minnows.
A Northland Tackle Single Wire Predator Rig features a single treble and is great for 4- to 6-inch minnows.
For big baits, those measuring 8-12 inches, the author prefers a two-treble system such as the Big Tooth Rig.
For big baits, those measuring 8-12 inches, the author prefers a two-treble system such as the Big Tooth Rig.

Unlike pike, largemouth bass won’t strike a dead bait that is hanging motionless on a tip-up. Sure, they’ll strike a dead bait if you’re jigging it, but that’s because they want to kill it. For whatever reason, bass aren’t interested in an easy meal of dead sucker or shiner.

This means you can catch both bass and pike if you rig all your tip-ups with 4- to 6-inch shiners or suckers. In my experience, bass favor shiners over suckers, but I’ve caught enough bass on live suckers to know they eat them, too.


Targeting Both Pike and Bass

In Minnesota we’re allowed two lines per angler during winter, so if I’m fishing with three buddies, we’ll place eight tip-ups in total. If a lake sometimes kicks out a pike measuring 36 inches or more, then I’ll rig two of our eight tip-ups with large dead suckers. We’ll rig the remaining six tip-ups with 4- to 6-inch live shiners or suckers.

If the lake has numerous bass, then I’ll take this into consideration when buying live bait on the drive to the lake. I’ll buy shiners instead of suckers, provided I don’t have to settle for 3-inch shiners, which are generally too small and fragile for use on tip-ups unless you use very small trebles.

If a lake has few bass but numerous pike, then I’ll buy suckers only, which are cheaper. Pike seem to eat both shiners and suckers with the same aggressiveness. Note: In my area, shiners, especially those measuring 5-6 inches, are quite expensive so I don’t buy them often.

Buying tip: Some bait shops that aren’t “in the know” regarding a pike’s preference for large dead baits will sometimes throw away these minnows so they don’t stink up their live bait tanks. If you see a “floater” (large dead sucker) in the tank when you stop to purchase bait, then ask if you can have it. Chances are good they’ll give it to you for free and be happy to have it out of their tank.

At one nearby bait shop, the owner stockpiles large dead suckers in a freezer because he says catfishermen ask for them during spring and summer. He sells them to me in winter for pike. He charges $4 each for a 12-inch live sucker, and I can buy a dead one for $1. Think about it: Why would I pay $4 for a live sucker when the first thing I’ll do when I get ready to rig it on a tip-up for big pike is kill it?

Plan of Attack

Bass of all sizes and small- to medium-size pike are typically found around green weeds and on top of weed flats, so if my three buddies and I setting eight tip-ups, we’ll spread six of them out across the weed flat. These six tip-ups will be rigged with live bait. Be sure to check these tip-ups every 20-30 minutes to ensure the minnows are still lively, and that they aren’t tangled in weeds.

Large pike often roam the depths, so we’ll set the remaining two tip-ups with large dead bait 1-3 feet off the bottom away from the weeds. Assuming you do a decent job rigging these dead baits with tandem trebles, there’s no reason to check them often.

While it’s fun to see any tip-up’s flag fly, when one is rigged with a live minnow, there’s always a chance that the minnow itself tripped the flag. In other words, there might not be a bass or pike on the end of the line. Of course, if you see the tip-up shaft spinning fast, then you know it’s the real deal. It’s especially exciting when the flag flies on a tip-up rigged with the large dead sucker; obviously the bait didn’t trip the flag!

This winter do a bit of research about your lake destination before buying bait. Decide whether you want to catch pike only, or a mix of bass and pike, then purchase the minnows that give you the best chance for success.


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